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Four Burning Questions – Fontana: A Surging Veteran And NASCAR’s Tire Story
A budding rivalry between Joey Logano and Denny Hamlin left fans buzzing about Auto Club Speedway last season.

Four Burning Questions – Fontana: A Surging Veteran And NASCAR’s Tire Story

Ah, Auto Club Speedway. The facility has come a long way in its seventeen years of existence. What was once considered to be the most maligned track on the Sprint Cup circuit is now routinely hailed as one of the sport’s top tracks. The combination of long, drafty straightaways and tire-chewing bumpy corners has made Auto Club both a fan and driver favorite, and that recent history of solid racing looks primed to continue today. Of course, the on-track product won’t be the only story to follow for this race. Tire failures, a resurgent Jeff Gordon, and slow-to-warm-up JGR cars will all bear watching in the Auto Club 400, and I’m here to tell you exactly why.

1. Will last season’s fireworks return to Fontana?

What a difference a few years make. It wasn’t all that long ago that Auto Club Speedway was the (admittedly anecdotal) consensus “worst track on the circuit.” But after losing a second race date, trimming the distance off the one race that remained, and the continued after-effects of aging asphalt, the track has experienced a renaissance in terms of excitement. The 2011 event was a scintillating affair that saw Kyle Busch, Jimmie Johnson, and Kevin Harvick fight hammer and tong for the win over the event’s final ten laps. The 2012 event also saw some great racing that was unfortunately cut short by rain. And of course, last year’s event was a coming-out party of sorts for the speedway featuring an epic duel between Joey Logano, Kyle Busch, and Denny Hamlin that landed the latter in the hospital after the white-flag lap.

A budding rivalry between Joey Logano and Denny Hamlin left fans buzzing about Auto Club Speedway last season.

A budding rivalry between Joey Logano and Denny Hamlin left fans buzzing about Auto Club Speedway last season.

In fact, last year’s race was such a wild event that many are predicting similar fireworks will go off in the event’s 2014 running; Auto Club announced a sellout crowd Saturday evening. Well, I hate to burst bubbles, but I’ll be the first to tell you that’s not likely to happen today.

Simply put, the wild beating and banging that typified the final ten laps of last year’s event is not something that can be expected at intermediate tracks as wide as Auto Club. These facilities are too big, too fast, and too treacherous for such contact-laden racing to be an expected outcome. What you can expect is a race that features a great deal of passing, comers-and-goers, and just generally solid intermediate-track competition. The aged surface and multiple grooves inherent to Auto Club almost guarantee that, leading to a different kind of frantically memorable finish . But for those expecting a wreckfest, complete with lots of contact and frayed tempers, well… let’s just say you are going to be disappointed.

Nonetheless, today’s racing should be generally excellent. Just don’t expect a contact-bonanza like last year.

McCUBBIN: Breaking Down The Nationwide Series Race Saturday At Fontana

2. Four tires every pit stop… right?

To answer the above question: you better believe it. Tires are going to be utterly paramount in today’s race, with their durability having a major effect on how teams employ race strategy. Today’s race will be something of an anomaly insofar as track position will be largely meaningless. Auto Club’s wide, sweeping corners offer plenty of room for drivers to race and pass, thus effectively neutralizing the clean air effect and making it an easy endeavor. Just look at Kyle Busch, who launched from the rear of the field right into the lead Saturday, from 39th to 1st by Lap 42.

What this means is crew chiefs will have to be cognizant of their tire strategy, perhaps more so than in any other race. They’ll need to make sure that their drivers always have some sort of a tire advantage over their competitors, because anytime a driver has fresher tires than others, those without stand to fall like rocks through the field. Expect lots of short-pitting, like an old race at Darlington as teams try to gain that all-important speed advantage through fresh Goodyears.

Another storyline in this regard that fans should keep an eye on are tire failures. A multitude of drivers, including big names such as Joey Logano, Martin Truex, Jr, and others experienced multiple left-rear failures in practice, leading the two aforementioned drivers to backup cars. There is some concern in the garage, which I agree with, that it could carry over into the race.

3. Could Jeff Gordon be in for a big day?

It seems like forever since Jeff Gordon has shown this much strength over the course of a weekend leading up to an intermediate track event. But alas, here we are, and Gordon appears to be a heavy favorite at his de facto home race track. The most consistent driver this weekend, Gordon placed second in every single practice session along with putting his car on Row 3 of the starting grid.

Gordon is quietly off to one of his best starts to a season ever, carrying a great deal of momentum into today’s race. Also, bear in mind that Gordon is a three-time winner at the speedway and tends to run very well at bumpy racetracks in the vein of Auto Club. If there were ever an intermediate track to favor the No. 24 car in 2014, well, this one would be it.

That makes this driver, the only one to start this season with four top-10 finishes a pre-race favorite. When Gordon has a race-winning car, historically he tends to get to the front early and stays there. So if you see him at the front early in today’s race, jumping up from Row 3 expect the No. 24 Chevy to be a threat to win on Lap 200.

4. Can the JGR cars finally wake up this week?

2014 has been a hit-or-miss year thus far for Joe Gibbs Racing. JGR was arguably the strongest overall race team in 2013, and many garage observers were expecting that success to carry over into 2014. So far, the results have been mixed. All three JGR drivers were strong in Speedweeks, but in the races since then, the team as a whole has been somewhat erratic in terms of on-track performance. Results, sometimes luck-based and sometimes based on poor handling have put them a small step behind.

Such misfortunes ought to end in today’s race, however. All three drivers were strong throughout the weekend’s practices, and team driver Matt Kenseth put his No. 20 machine on the pole for today’s event. This track has been very kind to the team in the past, with Kyle Busch winning the race in 2011 and ’13. All things considered, it only seems fair to rank the team’s three drivers as strong favorites for today.

Personally, I would expect to see at least two of the JGR cars in the hunt all race long, with Kevin Harvick and Jeff Gordon being the team’s main challengers for the win. All of those aforementioned drivers have delivered strong weekends up to this point; I think it’s fair to predict that your winner will come from that group.

Matt Stallknecht’s Pre-Race Predictions for the 2014 Auto Club 400:
1. 24 – Jeff Gordon
2. 20 – Matt Kenseth
3. 18 – Kyle Busch
4. 2 – Brad Keselowski
5. 15 – Clint Bowyer
6. 55 – Brian Vickers
7. 4 – Kevin Harvick
8. 48 – Jimmie Johnson
9. 11 – Denny Hamlin
10. 99 – Carl Edwards

About Matt Stallknecht

Matt Stallknecht
Promoted to editor in 2014, Matt fights off rogue commas from our writing staff after rounding himself into a “young gun” racing expert. For the past two seasons, he’s penned the popular Four Burning Questions column (Weekends) highlighting the upcoming NASCAR race weekend. As an author for our open-wheel section, Matt also contributes to Open-Wheel Wednesdays and a substantial amount of race coverage and analysis. Matt, a native of Central New York also balances his duites with a full-time college course load. He’s a Senior at Le Moyne college this Fall.